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The ostrich is a member of the family Struthionidae in the order Struthioniformes. It is classified as Struthio camelus. This translates from the Greek as 'sparrow camel' - this refers to the perceived strangeness of the creature. It is also the largest, strongest, living species of bird in the world. They are so strong they can carry a small man1. The ostrich is native to Africa. They were once found in the Middle East but due to excessive hunting they are no longer found in this area. They are very adaptable and are found in rocky areas, deserts and open savannas. The ostrich will live for 30 to 70 years, with 50 being the average.
The ostrich grows to roughly 2.4 m (8 ft) and a weight from 90 to 130 kg. There have been some males that have been weighed at 155 kg. This varies on the environment and the sex of the bird. They have long necks and legs, which have no feathers on them at all. Ostriches have small heads, with large eyes and short, broad beaks. These eyes are framed in thick black eye lashes. Their eyes are considerable larger than their brains. An ostrichs' eyes are the largest eyes of any living land animals.
The male ostrich has black feathers with white tail and wing feathers. The female on the other hand is a dull brown. Ostrich feathers are used by the bird for insulation. These feathers differ from regular stiff airfoil feather used by flying birds. This makes the wings unsuitable for flying. Instead the wings are used by the males for mating displays and cover for chicks. The wings of an ostrich can also be used to scare off potential predators. It is interesting to note that the wings of an ostrich have two small claws at the tips. The feathers on a male ostrich are very large and very soft and have a considerable commercial value. This has caused them to be hunted in the Middle East and has lead to extinction in this area.
The chicks of an ostrich are very different to some British birds for example the robin. Ostriches are born with feathers and within the first few hours they are up and running. The chicks grow very quickly about 25cm a month for the first year. They will stay with the family group till they reach sexual maturity at two to four years old.
One of the factors that make the ostrich famous is the long legs. These legs as well as the neck are featherless. At the base of the legs there are two toes. One is considerably larger than the other, and resembles a hoof. This evolutionary trait seems unique to the ostrich, and appears to aid the ostrich when running. With these legs an ostrich can reach 40-mph/65 km an hour. While running ostriches raise their small wings. They start to stretch out their longs legs and take massive strides. It also uses these long powerful legs for defence. An ostrich can give a nasty kick that puts off a lot of predators.
Like most desert animals the ostrich can go for a while without any water. When water is short they can take water from the plants that they digest. However once they can find water they will drink up and if they can they will frequently take a bath.
The ostrich is an omnivore2. While it eats various insects to gain protein, the main food source is plant material and seeds. The ostrich will also be seen to eat pebbles. This is due to the fact that they do not have any teeth and they use the stones to digest food in their gizzard.
This pebble eating has lead to the myth that an ostrich hides its head in the sand at the first sight of trouble. The genesis of this myth is very likely to be famous Roman writer Pliny the Elder. While writing his Naturalis Historia he observed and noted down that the ostrich actually hid his head in a bush, and, as with most stories, it became twisted, to form the myth we know today. Of course the fact is that if the ostrich really did bury its head in the sand it would suffocate. There have been no sightings of a ostrich ever burying its head in the sand.
The males are polygamous3 and travel about in hot, sandy areas with three or four females each. Alternately they can travel in groups of four or five males accompanied by mates and young. It is also common to find a group of ostrich with groups of grazers such as zebra and antelope and other herbivores. This is a match made in heaven. The ostriches gain strength in numbers. The grazers gain a ready-made security system. Ostriches have very good eyesight and coupled with their excellent hearing, they have plenty of advance warning of potential predators.
Once the ostrich reaches the age of sexual maturity, about two to four years old (the female ostrich reaches sexual maturity six months before the male) the group dynamic will change. The mating season starts March/April and will end September/October. Of course this will alter depending on the region were the ostrich lives, but not by much. In much the same ways as other group animals the males will fight for the right to mate with the females. These fights can become nasty, but normally the males will just hiss at each other. The winner of these fights will be allowed to breed with all the females. The male will though form a strong bond relationship with one female. This pair is know as the alpha male and alpha female.
The gestation period for an ostrich is about six weeks. The ostrich digs a hollow and lays about 20 eggs in the ground, which all the females will lay their yellowish-white eggs together in one communal nest in the sand. Sometimes in captivity the eggs are dropped randomly and it is up to the keepers to place the eggs in a group. Eventually the female gets the idea and starts to lay them in the group.
The eggs weigh about 1.4 kg (about 3 lb) each and have a volume of about 1.4 litres (about 3 pt). With the increased sized of the eggs the shell has to be stronger than an average egg from a chicken or it would collapse in on itself. These are some of the biggest eggs laid in the world and are a delicacy in some cultures. Though it is important to note that these eggs are the smallest in comparison to the ostrich’s size. The incubation of these eggs is shared between the two parents. The female incubates the eggs in the day and the male at night. There is a very important reason for this. This system makes the best advantage of the camouflage that the ostriches have. The eggs will hatch after 42 days of incubation. Once hatched the chicks will be looked after by the father.
Ostrich defence and offence
The warning dance
This is something that has to be seen to be believed. The male will crouch down on the floor and will move its head and neck in an oscillating motion. The wings of the male ostrich will be put up behind the neck as a sort of fan, a lot like that of a peacock. This display is very alluring to the female ostrich and shows the fertility of the male. Of course this can be used on the flip side as a warning dance. When the male ostrich is incubating the eggs he is very venerable to an attack. So this dance is enough to scare off most predators. If this does not work the male ostrich is very quick from a sitting start and he will normally chase the predator off. Most predators are put off by the powerful kick. Of course during this chase the eggs are vulnerable, but there are always more than one male there at any time to protect the eggs.
If an ostrich meets a predator or some kind of danger they will normally run away or fight, but if the ostrich is injured or looking after the chicks they will lay down with their head on the ground, wings and tail flat. This works really well for the females, because the drab brown feathers of the female makes her look like a mound of earth. The chicks will either copy the parents or run into long grass. Of course this depends on the age of the chicks they might run under mum or dad and hide that way. This technique is sometimes even used by the males but they are not naturally suited to it they are more camouflaged at night.
Where to see Ostriches
Ostriches can be seen in lots of zoos around the UK. They are also kept on various safaris. For example ostriches are also kept at Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire. There is a TV series filmed there called Animal Park were the resident ostriches are sometimes shown. This is also a good place to go if you are interested in seeing chicks. Trevor the resident male ostrich has fathered the first set of chicks bred at Longleat.
The Ostrich has been farmed all over the world, even Sweden. Ostriches have been farmed in the UK since the 1980's.They are easy to keep and can provide a variety of products such as: feathers, leather, eggs, meet and oil. This makes the Ostrich an ideal choice for farmers looking for a rare and unique product to market. Practically all of the Ostrich can be used somewhere so there is little wastage. The meet from the Ostrich is a delicacy in a lot of cultures4. The eggs from an Ostrich are very tasty and are the largest in the world.